US secretary of state Antony Blinken vowed unity Friday with Southeast Asian nations against “coercion”, in a thinly veiled reference to Beijing, as host Indonesia warned at talks that the region should not become a proxy for global rivalries.
Blinken met foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Jakarta at a gathering that also brought the top diplomats of China and Russia, the two main adversaries to the United States.
A day after his latest talks with China on managing tensions between the two powers, Blinken made a clear if unstated allusion to concerns shared with many in the region over Beijing.
“We share a vision of the Indo-Pacific that is free, open, prosperous, secure, connected and resilient,” Blinken told ASEAN foreign ministers, using another term for the Asia region.
“That means a region where countries are free to choose their own paths and their own partners, where problems are dealt with openly — not through coercion,” he said.
“We must uphold the freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas and maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
Friction has been rising for years between Beijing and Southeast Asian nations, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, over China’s sweeping claims to much of the South China Sea.
Maritime incidents have been on the rise and tensions have also soared over Taiwan, the self-governing democracy which Beijing claims and has not ruled out seizing by force.
But host Indonesia warned that ASEAN cannot become a proxy, as tensions flare not only between the United States and China but over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“The Indo-Pacific must not be another battleground,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told ministers of the 18-nation East Asia Summit, which includes the United States, China and Russia, as well as Japan, India and Australia.
“Our region must remain stable, and we intend to keep it that way.”
The annual closed-door talks have often been a raucous affair as big powers clash, but the United States and China have been working to prevent disagreements from spiraling out of control.
Blinken met Thursday evening for more than an hour and a half with China’s foreign policy supremo Wang Yi, less than a month after the top US diplomat paid a rare visit to Beijing.
He told Wang that Washington would hold hackers “accountable” after a breach of US government email accounts was blamed on Chinese state-backed actors, a US official said.
Wang urged Washington to “work with China in the same direction” to improve ties and stop interfering in China’s affairs, according to a statement on Friday by the foreign ministry in Beijing.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong held her own meeting with Wang on Thursday and said she had urged Beijing to provide “transparency” on a controversial policing pact with Solomon Islands.
“We will continue to engage in dialogue, we will continue to work to navigate our differences wisely. I’ve said that we can grow our bilateral relationship, while safeguarding our national interest,” she told reporters on Friday.
US shuns Russia
While the United States has sought to increase communication with China, Blinken shunned Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the two men making no eye contact.
Jakarta marked the first time that Blinken and Lavrov were in the same room since a Group of 20 meeting in March in New Delhi, where they spoke briefly on the sidelines.
US officials say Russia has no real interest in diplomacy to end the war in Ukraine, with Western powers instead ramping up military support to Kyiv.
The US approach has caused unease in parts of the developing world, with countries including India and South Africa refusing to rally behind condemnation of Russia.
Meeting with ASEAN, Blinken called for a “just and lasting peace to Russia’s war of aggression” in Ukraine.
In an interview with Indonesian media this week, Lavrov said the war in Ukraine would not end until Western nations gave up their efforts to “defeat” Russia.
Pressure on Myanmar
ASEAN talks have been dominated by the crisis in Myanmar. The bloc refused to invite the country’s military junta, which seized power in February 2021.
With Myanmar’s chair at the table conspicuously empty, Blinken urged more pressure.
“In Myanmar, we must press the military regime to stop the violence, to implement ASEAN’s five-point consensus, to support a return to democratic governance,” Blinken said.
ASEAN reached a five-point peace plan two years ago with the junta, which has yet to implement it.
Myanmar’s neighbour Thailand has broken with the bloc by pursuing engagement with the junta, although its foreign minister said he also was able to see deposed elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday.